Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sermon, 2 Lent 2011: This Vexing Little "Dud" of a Story

2 Lent 2011
(Matthew 15:21-28)
This Vexing Little “Dud” of a Story

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Most preachers, I suspect, hope for a text that allows for a certain rhetorical eloquence or else deep, theological reflection, or – well, anything other than what is on offer in this vexing little “dud” of story given us in the lectionary this morning, a story in which the very sympathetic character of a mother humiliates herself before Jesus and a crowd of onlookers for the sake of her sick child, only to be ignored and then rebuffed by the Master himself. Now, you tell me: what am I supposed to do with that?

Part of the problem is that the lectionary today, as it so often does, sets us down right in the middle of an ongoing drama and expects us to understand – without context – what is happening. I can, I think, at least remedy that part of the problem.

Jesus and his disciples are home, north in Galilee, by the sea. He has lately received news that his kinsman and forerunner, John, has been executed – albeit reluctantly – by the decree of Herod. Jesus wants to be alone for awhile: to pray, to reflect. But the crowds follow him, sick and hungry, a vast multitude of need. So, moved to compassion, Jesus heals them and feeds them, over five thousand men, with five loaves and two fish – a miracle Matthew describes with intentional Eucharist imagery.

Jesus then sends his disciples on ahead of him by boat to Gennesaret, while he dismisses the crowd and prays through the night. During the fourth watch – sometime between 3 and 6 a.m. – Jesus finally rejoins the disciples, walking on the water and calming the storm in which these experienced fishermen find themselves helpless. As so, this small boatload of weary men comes to Gennesaret. And a crowd gathers and once again Jesus heals them.

Then they arrive, the scribes and Pharisees; they arrive from Jerusalem with a burning question of crucial importance: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat” (Mt 15:2, NRSV). Really, guys? Herod has just executed your countryman, a man considered a prophet of God by the masses, and you walk 75 miles from Jerusalem just to question my personal hygiene? Really, guys? I’ve just fed five thousand men with a sack lunch and healed countless more by letting them touch the hem of my garment, and you want to talk about dirty hands? Really guys? I’ve just walked on water and calmed a storm – all with unwashed hands, I might add – and it’s the unwashed hands that interest you?

It really does sound ludicrous, doesn’t it – trivia in the face of monumental truth? But is wasn’t trivial at all to the Pharisees; it was a matter of national and religious survival and yes, they had walked 75 miles to challenge Jesus on this and they would have walked 750 miles, if necessary. Theirs was a mission of homeland security as it had been for nearly two hundred fifty years. They had learned from their fathers and grandfathers and from generations before that the only way to maintain national identity in the face of occupation and persecution was through strict and absolute fidelity to the Law. Their name was their philosophy: Pharisee – the separate ones, the ones who separated themselves from the pagans and from their apostate countrymen through faithfulness to the letter of God’s law, through their purity. So, yes, under the present Roman occupation the washing of hands was important. So, yes, under the present Roman occupation Jesus was a threat: a renegade rabbi and worker of wonders who gathered sinners and tax collectors, the poor and disenfranchised, and God knows who else about himself and taught them – by example, if not by word – to ignore the Law. It was a matter of purity, and purity was a matter of survival.

“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

Jesus minces no words in his response; he, too, knows this is about purity, and he intends to properly redefine the whole notion.

7 Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 8 ‘ These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. 9 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” 10 When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Mt 15:7-9, NKJV).

And there it is; for Jesus, purity is not a matter of the hands, but of the heart: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10) just as David had prayed. What the Pharisees do not yet understand, but perhaps suspect and fear, is that Jesus is redefining national and religious identity, creating a new Israel with himself at the center, a new Israel whose badges of identity are not purity of hands and faithfulness to the Law, but purity of heart and faithfulness to Jesus, a new Israel not defined by ethnicity but by humility.

This is a lot to process and, as usual, the disciples are confused, before and probably even after Jesus explains his purity code in detail:

16 So Jesus said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? 18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. 19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. 20 These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man” (Mt 15:16-20, NKJV).

And with this the group is off again, this time north to Tyre and Sidon, to a defiled gentile region where the purity-conscious Pharisees are unlikely to follow, and where the disciples can see true purity and faithfulness, where they can glimpse new Israel, incarnate in the person of a Canaanite woman.

And so, perhaps we come now to our vexing little “dud” of a story with clearer eyes and deeper understanding. We find that this encounter is nothing less than an in-breaking of the kingdom of God – in Tyre and Sidon, of all places – an eschatological moment in which the last days intersect this day and all is renewed and a Canaanite woman is redeemed by the God of Israel.

The story does not start that way, however.

21 Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” 23 But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us” (Mt 15:21-23, NKJV).

The irony here isn’t subtle at all, is it? The Pharisees, whom Jesus thought to leave behind in Gennesaret, have followed him to Phoenicia – in the persons of his own disciples. She is unclean, Lord, an impure gentile; send her away. And so, for a moment, Jesus plays the role they request and expect – plays a role in order ultimately to vindicate this Canaanite woman, to open the eyes of his disciples, to purify their hearts and minds, and to give us all a glimpse of the new Israel – the kingdom of God.

24 But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

And this, of course, is true. Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus is the completion of the law and the hope of the prophets. Jesus’ mission is to the Jew first, but then also to the Greek. For in first becoming Israel’s messiah, Jesus also becomes the savior of the world, the redeemer of all men, the restorer of the cosmos. In coming first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Jesus comes to gather all lost sheep – from flocks we never dreamed of – into one fold, true Israel, with one shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.

25 Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” 26 But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” 27 And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

What a climax for the story. Jesus affords this “impure” Canaanite woman the opportunity to vindicate herself in the eyes of his disciples who have yet to grasp the true nature of purity, gives her the opportunity to show that amidst all this abstract, theological talk of purity she is the one pure soul there – a soul made pure and shown to be pure by humility and faith: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

The next words were spoken by Jesus, and though he spoke to the Canaanite woman, I can well imagine that he looked straight at his disciples, straight into their pharisaical hearts and spoke to them, as well: See, it isn’t about washed hands or even about ethnic identity. It’s about this, about this woman, about this woman’s faith.

28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

And, as Anglicans are wont to say, Here endeth the lesson. But, the question hangs in the air, asked of the disciples and of us: What will you do with this vexing little “dud” of a story?

The answer comes, in part, through a hymn of the Eastern church – a hymn that lies very near the heart of Orthodox piety:

A most compunctionate hymn do I, the unworthy one, offer Thee, and like the Canaanitish woman, I cry to Thee: O Jesus, have mercy on me! For not a daughter, but a flesh have I which is violently possessed by the passions and troubled with anger. Grant Thou healing to me, who cry aloud to Thee: Alleluia ( from The Akathist Hymn To Jesus Christ, A Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians).

This hymn calls us to acknowledge that we are – each of us – the daughter of the Canaanite woman, a daughter grappling with forces too powerful for us, with “no power of ourselves to help ourselves” (The Collect, The Second Sunday of Lent, BCP 1928). It calls us to acknowledge that St. Paul’s words describe us better than we know or wish:

For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death (Rom 8:22-24, NKJV)?

So we cry: O Jesus, have mercy on us. Grant thou healing to those who cry aloud to Thee: Alleluia. And in response, dare we hear Jesus’ words to the woman as his words to us? “Great is your faith. Let it be to you as you desire.” Dare we hope that, just as he healed that faithful woman’s daughter from that very hour, he will so heal us? Yes: thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:57, NKJV).

This vexing little “dud” of story is, in reality, a blessed great gem of a story, a kingdom story that proclaims freedom from bondage and abundant life for all who come in faith crying out: O Jesus, have mercy on us.

Still, the question hangs in the air, asked of the disciples and of us: What will you do with this vexing little “dud” of a story?

The answer comes, in part, through a prayer – a Eucharistic prayer – that lies very near the heart of Anglican piety:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Each time we offer this prayer of humble access, we acknowledge that we are – each of us – the Canaanite woman, coming to Jesus with no righteousness of our own, coming to Jesus with no right to do so, coming to Jesus hoping against hope just to gather up crumbs under his table. And, expecting nothing, deserving nothing, through his astounding grace we are given everything: not our righteousness, but his perfect righteousness; not crumbs but a feast – the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. No longer are we impure: our sinful bodies are made clean by his body, and our souls are washed by his most precious blood. Like the Canaanite woman, we find ourselves vindicated in the sight of heaven and earth through humility, faith, and grace. Dare we hear Jesus’ words to the woman as his words to us? “Great is your faith. Let it be to you as you desire.” Yes, for in this feast, our Father – and what a privilege to say those words – our Father,

dost assure us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of his most precious death and passion.

This vexing little “dud” of story is, in reality, a blessed great gem of a story, a kingdom story that breaks down all barriers of purity and ethnicity and creates a new people of God:

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:26-29, NKJV).

The Church Fathers – Origen, Chrysostom, and others – saw the Canaanite woman as the archetype of the gentile church, the fulfillment of what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17 ‘ And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your young men shall see visions, Your old men shall dream dreams. 18 And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; And they shall prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in heaven above And signs in the earth beneath: Blood and fire and vapor of smoke. 20 The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD. 21 And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the LORD Shall be saved’ (Acts 2:17-21, NKJV).

Dare we find ourselves in this prophecy – sons and daughters, vessels of the Holy Spirit, those who, through the name of LORD, know the salvation of the LORD? Yes, for we know this vexing little “dud” of a story to be a blessed great gem of a story, a gospel story of great good news: forgiveness, healing, adoption, salvation.

Church tradition provides names for many of the “unnamed” characters in the Gospel narratives: Photini is the woman at the well in Sychar; Ignatius is the child Jesus called to his side as an example of humility. This Canaanite woman, though, is not given a name by tradition. Perhaps she remains unnamed because she is much more than a single individual, much greater than one person’s name. She is everyone who comes to Christ pleading for undeserved mercy, everyone who comes to Christ hoping for unmerited grace; everyone who comes to Christ to gather crumbs under his table only to be invited to the wedding banquet of the Lamb. She is you and she is me and she is all of us together. And this vexing little “dud” of story is in truth a blessed great gem of a story – the gospel in the life and person of this one Canaanite woman. Amen.

No comments: